Confidence in the Max aircraft will be restored before confidence in Boeing
As the world tries to determine when the Boeing Max aircraft will return to service, a more pressing question is when will confidence in Boeing be restored? Once a company known for proudly blazing a trail of unprecedented safety, Boeing has been plagued by reports of rushed production and lowered safety standards for years.
Imagine buying a new car from your favorite car company, snagging a vehicle known for its safety. Several months after your purchase, reports surface of multiple car accidents with fatalities, where the car’s complex steering system ripped the control away from drivers and thereby contributed to the accidents. As it turns out, the exact same feature exists on your car, without your knowledge. Even after scouring the operator’s manual, there is no mention of this complex steering system.
That is exactly how pilots of the Boeing 737 Max felt after learning of the Lion Air crash in October 2018. It was not until then that pilots learned of the sophisticated MCAS (Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System) system on their plane. This anti-stall system can aggressively take the flight controls away from pilots anytime the computer detects a stall. Adding to the issue was that this complex MCAS system was now relying on only one angle-of-attack sensor, instead of the dual redundant design from previous 737 models. This means that if there is a problem with the sole sensor, a single point of failure could feed faulty data to the MCAS system and could lead to a crash.
When American Airlines pilots, those flying the Max aircraft, pressed Boeing engineers into explaining how such a complex system could be placed onto their aircraft without their knowledge, the response was Boeing did not want to “overwhelm the crew with unnecessary information.”
It is hard to imagine the frustration felt by the Lion Air captain of flight 610 as he frantically flipped through the onboard flight ops manual looking for information that would allow him to regain control of his stricken aircraft. I suspect he would not have considered information on the MCAS system “unnecessary.” Sadly, he ran out of time, and 189 passengers and one rescue diver lost their lives as a result.
After the crash of the second Max aircraft in March 2019, another 157 lives were lost, and the similarities between the two crashes made it clear something was wrong with the Max aircraft. Instead of ordering the airplane grounded, Boeing again remained silent.
As airlines around the world ordered the plane out of service, the Federal Aviation Administration refused to do so, and Boeing remained silent. Many were looking for the three U.S. airlines who used the Max aircraft (American, Southwest and United) to ground the airplane, and they also chose not to do so. It was not until President Trump stepped in that the Max aircraft was ordered out of the skies, making the United States the last country on the planet to do so.
Later we would learn that the problems with the Max aircraft were discovered years before and Boeing failed to inform the FAA. Boeing test pilots, managers and others within the company reportedly expressed concerns over the (perceived) rush to get the airplane into and through production, but those concerns were not heeded.
At the time of the Max aircraft crashes, many aviation analysts took exception to my calls for the aircraft to be grounded. Their position was that Boeing was a company we could trust and there was nothing wrong with the Max aircraft. As it turns out, they were wrong on both counts.
I submit that confidence in the Max aircraft will be restored long before our confidence in Boeing. Once the aircraft is cleared to fly, Boeing should clean house and remove every person who knowingly allowed the plane to be rushed through production. Those who chose to ignore the recommendations of their employees over problems with the Max aircraft should be immediately dismissed as well. From the CEO to the lowest manager, there should be a cleaning house movement as never before, because the very future of the safety within the commercial aviation world depends upon it.
On multiple occasions it has been clear that a decision to do nothing was the recommended course of action, as Boeing tried to maintain pace with rival Airbus. Short cuts appear to have been taken and multiple items were not brought to the attention of the FAA inspectors or airline officials who were responsible for purchasing the aircraft. Once the Max aircraft is flying, Boeing needs to demonstrate, as never before, its commitment to safety by holding those responsible accountable. Failure to do so will only reinforce the position that past mistakes will occur again, possibly placing even more lives at risk.
Jay Ratliff spent over 20 years in management with Northwest/Republic Airlines, including as aviation general manager. He is an IHeart aviation analyst.